Microsoft Offers Monster Surface for Conferencing: Just $20,000

Surface Hub
The Microsoft Surface Hub. Source: Microsoft via Bloomberg

Ever wanted to replace conference-room white boards and projectors with a giant touch-screen flat-panel computer? Microsoft Corp. has the product for you -- for $20,000.

The company in July will start taking orders for its 84-inch Surface Hub, which comes with cameras and microphones and the ability to connect with various brands of phones and tablets. A 55-inch version costs $7,000. The pricier model is about half the price of a comparable conventional teleconference setup, Mike Angiulo, a vice president for hardware at Microsoft, said in an interview.

The device, available for delivery in September and carrying the same brand name as Microsoft’s tablets, is part of Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella’s mandate to focus on hardware projects where the company can offer something unique. Microsoft’s 2012 acquisition of Perceptive Pixel Inc. means it is the only company that can make such precise touch screens of that size at sufficient volume, Angiulo said.

The typical conference room “looks the same as when I started in 1993, and it’s still just as hard to get three people on the phone,” he said. “It’s easier for three kids to get together for a ‘Call of Duty’ session.”

The Surface Hub will automatically start a Skype Business call to all participants scheduled for a meeting. People using the Hub can walk up to the display and still be picked up by the cameras. Views can be shared with attendees, the device runs apps from the Windows Store and users can take notes on the screen.

Tough Sell

As a new type of product that probably will require the participation of technology executives and facilities personnel, the Hub could be a challenge to sell, said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

“There is a solid opportunity for something, but the question is how quickly and how large an opportunity,” he said. “I don’t expect these things to pop up overnight in every conference room in America.”

To build the Hub, Microsoft needed a new version of Windows and Office apps that work on Apple Inc. and Google Inc. devices because a conferencing product needs to connect to any gadgets that workers use, Angiulo said. Microsoft will release a new version of Windows next month and has put out Office apps for iOS and Android over the past year.

SHoP Architects, which designed the Barclays Center arena in New York, is putting Hubs field offices so architects can collaborate while manipulating images by touch. Law firm Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP wants to wheel the devices into courtrooms for demonstrations to juries, Angiulo said.

Microsoft built a factory to make the Hub in Wilsonville, Oregon, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Portland. Just 18 units fit in a tractor-trailer and shipping is costly, so overseas manufacturing wouldn’t be cost-effective, Angiulo said.

The Hub isn’t the first time that the Surface name has been used for a large touch-screen panel. The original Surface, released in 2007, was a coffee-table-size gizmo that required custom-designed apps. Microsoft sold it to just a few retail and hotel companies.

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